When in a position of leadership – you will be expected to lead
Updated: Jul 25
This is a personal opinion on the initial move to the “delay” stage of COVID-19 - I'm happy for it to open debate, but simply as a leadership trainer, I have written it to assist with my reflections on how I am going to use this as a teaching example.
My personal opinion on the government’s latest (as of March 13th 2020) direction on the Coronavirus is it didn’t go far enough. I’m not for closing schools just yet because many parents work in the emergency services, but I believe that schools and teachers should be instructed to prepare for closure – ie. preparation packs, online learning where possible and so on; but clarity on large gatherings as well as travel plans, and business practice could have been stronger. In the former two – postponement would give everyone clarity through which they could plan, and with regards to business, again, advising people that while there is no instruction to “shut up shop” – if people can work from home they should would have been easier on those who are looking to make that decision anyway. While I believe that power and responsibility to the people is important, a sense of “we have your back” is needed too.
The reason I say this is at the moment many organisations are “following government advice”. Perhaps they want to close, but like with cancelling travel plans in advance – no-one really wants to do anything that will put themselves or their business in jeopardy when a couple of days later things may change and it would have been more advantageous to wait . For example, travel could be reimbursed because of the “advice not to fly”, or everything is ordered to shut down so no-one needs to worry about not pleasing everyone.
You lead the people in a group as well as the group itself. Some groups are very self sufficient. I actually have masks (and disposable latex gloves for that matter (I dye my hair) which I think are even better for avoiding contact with surfaces), and I’m also self employed and currently in my “down time” which I’ve budgeted for. It’s easy for me to request to postpone engagements right now, if that hasn’t already been done. But for others, even with knowing you can call in sick if you are sick, no-one wants to “work from home” until they are told to…or rather scrap that, people are reluctant to do so (because they feel guilty) until they are told to. I appreciate that no-one really wants “complete isolation” including domestic quarantine, but IF that is what will eventually happen, then it helps to be told to prepare. This current “we’re not really telling you to do anything except wash your hands and stay at home if you cough persistently” doesn’t help people take action, and doesn't really show much support for those who are taking initiative to begin remote procedures or postpone their events. At the moment people are simply saying “We’re following government advice” – people at the moment are looking to be led.
Leadership reflection 1: Know WHO you are leading, and adapt to them – the bigger the group the harder it can be. Some people need to know that taking initiative will be supported, it’s tough to take the first steps sometimes and if those who do feel they have made the right choice IN SPITE of leadership rather than BECAUSE of it (ie. they were empowered and supported), you will have lost loyalty and trust from people who are strong and pro-active decision makers.
“We will lose many more loved ones” (Boris Johnson addressing the Nation, 12th March 2020). This was sobering. Perhaps it needed to be said to appreciate the reality of an infection which is, for some, far far worse than “flu”. BUT I found his speech to be defeatist. I personally think an infection peak could be lowered with controls enforced and as such there isn’t a sense of the “inevitable” but rather I feel we “could do something more.” But I'm not an expert, all I know in this case there is a great reliance on “science” – but, I also think we could be learning from other countries – China locked down and that helped a lot, and in the past similar actions have shown to be effective in controlling the flu pandemic, SARS and MERS. There is no need for draconian measures just yet (eg. Domestic isolation), but I come back to requesting that while things remain open – people need to be supported in making their best judgments. If you aren’t going to lead definitively, give your seconds the power to – and offer them your support.
Leadership reflection 2: A positive attitude is essential in crisis. Why is Henry V so often cited (I appreciate Shakespeare’s rousing words help), but a sense of camaraderie is better engaged through positive action rather than “wait it out”. (Especially when the world is so connected and it is easy to see what others are doing.)
I am not saying that leaders should bow to pressure. Donald Trump’s ban on European flights was hardly diplomatic, and what Boris Johnson (to my mind) got right was to convey a sense of being “in this together - globally”. Hence why I felt a stronger sense of “standing with our European neighbours and Asian and American allies” by, for example, restricting our own large gatherings would allow for organisers to reschedule and people to feel they aren’t losing out…after all, we would like to boost tourism again when we have come through this pandemic.
I also felt a distinct lack of trust - the idea that "people will tire" of self isolation. Trust people and we may well be more resilient than you think...tell us that you think we're going to get fed up and, well, "thanks for the vote of confidence".
Leadership reflection 3: Collaboration, especially in the face of a global issue must go beyond politics (or ego). What’s the point of being “Overall winner” if you are the victor of ashes? To be a leader you need to have followers – but followers are looking to be led – especially in a crisis.
Give clear direction
Show support for initiative
You cannot always predict the outcome, but being proactive is empowering, inspiring and leading.
Dr Audrey Tang is a chartered psychologist and author. Listen to her podcast Retrain Your Brain here; and catch her practical masterclasses Psych Back to Basics on DisruptiveTV & Energy Top Up for resilience For quick tips and tools: click for SKILL PILL and Q&A videos and here for Media appearances. Twitter/IG @draudreyt